Social Media Vulnerability and Large Numbers

Safety on social media is difficult to maintain for all users, especially for those users who use platforms with millions of members and relatively small staffing ratios. A 2014 TED Talk by the Vice President of Trust & Safety at Twitter emphasizes this point. The complete Del Harvey Ted Talk is included bellow and worth the watch:


This speech raises several good points to consider for user safety. The idea of “visualizing catastrophe” is the perfect encasement of our mission here at the Direful Media Lab. Thinking of how the benign can be turned dangerous, and how to prevent those repercussions through user education, is a major goal of ours. As we have pointed out with smartphone applications like Ruby by Glow, information is vulnerable to the provider of the service. However, it is also vulnerable to threats from other users.

With 500 million messages sent out a day, Twitter is susceptible to problems with user protection. Del Harvey notes in her talk that because of the scale of Twitter, a one-in-a-million vulnerability threat happens often (around 500 times a day if basic math is applied). Fringe events, such as redirection attacks and spamming, become a norm.

There is also a problem with people possibly being affected in their real life. Foursquare, a popular real-time location sharing service allows for out-on-the-town planning. With more than 55 million people worldwide having “checked-in” to 7 billion times. Unfortunately this service can be used for other more nefarious purposes.

This has been demonstrated most infamously by websites such as who compiled information on users to show problems with oversharing. Pleaserobme was founded in 2010 and drew information from Twitter and Foursquare to show real-time where a person checks in and their home address. The idea is that if a user is shown to be in one place then they are not at home thus inviting people to rob their house.

The team behind the website addressed the problem with over sharing in a blog article:

Social networks have increased enormously in size and number … and it’s easy to lose track of just how much information you might be giving away and how many people have free access to it. These new technologies make it increasingly easy to share potentially sensitive personal information, like your exact location. People might be over-sharing without knowing about it. For example, you might relay your Foursquare location to your public Twitter account and by doing this expose the message to the whole world.

Despite their intentions to demonstrate vulnerabilities, they were accused of advocating burglary. The site was soon taken down shortly after its release but it raised serious questions about oversharing. Even Foursquare was forced to respond to the problems in a rare lengthy message. Del Harvey states in her talk that Twitter now strips Geolocation data from photos uploaded to Twitter to stop the accidental oversharing in the metadata of photos.

Although attempts are being made to address this issue, the sheer size of these networks makes it difficult for security to catch all of the slip ups. This is the same kind of problem that other popular social media websites, such as Facebook at 968 million daily active users, faces. Thus remains our mission to point out these vulnerabilities.

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